Dr. Len's Cancer Blog

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Dr. Len's Cancer Blog

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Progress In Colorectal Cancer Not Shared By Everyone

by Dr. Len March 19, 2014

An article published this week in the American Cancer Society journal CA: A Journal for Clinicians received a lot of media attention. The report showed dramatic declines in the rate of people being diagnosed with colorectal cancer, as well as decreases in the rates of colorectal cancer deaths over the past number of years.

But the press didn't say much about the fact that not everyone has benefitted from the progress we have made in the prevention, early detection, and improved treatment for colorectal cancer. It is a sad but very real commentary on how we approach health care in this country that African Americans have not benefitted equally from this progress in treating a cancer that for many people can be prevented or effectively treated when found before it spreads to other parts of the body.

As a nation, I believe it is incumbent that we address this glaring health disparity. To do less is unacceptable. More...

It Helps To Know What Watchful Waiting Really Means In Prostate Cancer Treatment

by Dr. Len March 06, 2014

News reports covering a prostate cancer study this week in the New England Journal of Medicine have all pretty much come out with the same message: men diagnosed with prostate cancer who had radical surgery did much better than men who were assigned to "watchful waiting" after they were diagnosed.

But guess what? There's a critical fact that seemed to be missing in much of the coverage I saw. And that fact is this: the men who were given the "watchful waiting" as described in the study never received any curative treatment. Let me repeat: No curative treatment. That is a much different approach to watchful waiting than we currently recommend in the United States, where watchful waiting after a diagnosis of prostate cancer usually means offering curative treatment when the prostate cancer changes its behavior. More...

Personalized Medicine Revolution Will Require Revolutionary Changes In How We Care For Cancer Patients

by Dr. Len October 18, 2013

I attended a meeting in Washington this past Wednesday that got me to thinking about the fact that as we revolutionize cancer research and treatment, we are also going to have to revolutionize cancer care. And that  may prove to be an even more daunting task than finding new treatments for the disease itself.

The meeting was sponsored by a collaboration called "Turning The Tide Against Cancer". The organizers brought together experts from a variety of disciplines ranging from insurance companies and economists to advocacy groups and highly regarded cancer specialists to discuss policy solutions to support innovation in cancer research and care. Walking in, I anticipated this was going to be another one of those sessions where we talked about funding for research, bringing research into clinical trials, and having patients get access to new drugs. But I was wrong. The discussions quickly steered into a different direction: what do we need to do to make the cancer care system work for patients?

Of course there were the continuing themes of "big data" and the impact of genomics on drug development and patient care, but a surprising amount of the discussion centered around new payment models, quality of care, and fundamental redesign of medical care to become more patient centric. And although we talked a lot about data gathering and analysis, what stuck with me was the redesign piece. I thought the discussion around redesign would focus on personalized medicine, but we spent a lot of time on changing the fundamental structure of cancer care and payment.

How are those two linked? Did we miss our focus?

The answer? If we don't change the way the system is working, we won't realize the promise of personalized medicine. Seems pretty simple and straight forward until you start thinking about the implications. More...

New Update On Prostate Cancer Prevention With Finasteride Creates A Dilemma For Patients

by Dr. Len August 14, 2013

 

We've all heard the phrase, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."  Well, that saying may hold particular relevance while reviewing a new research report published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The report is an important one. It is an 18 year follow-up of a study designed to show whether the use of the drug finasteride could reduce the incidence and deaths from prostate cancer. The study was called the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial and when it was initially reported in 2003 it showed that the drug could reduce the incidence of prostate cancer by almost 25%.  However, there was a catch: there was actually an increase of almost 27% in the number of high grade-or more serious-prostate cancers in the group treated with finasteride compared to those men who did not get the drug. The men in this trial were followed very closely. Since this trial was done in an era when PSA testing to find prostate cancer "early" was part of routine care, these men were screened regularly with the PSA test.

The originally reported results of the trial meant two things to the researchers: first, finasteride was successful in reducing the frequency of prostate cancer, but most of that decrease was in the lower grade, less harmful forms of the disease, and second, it raised the question of whether the drug actually promoted more serious forms of prostate cancer. Some experts argued that in fact there weren't more numerous high grade tumors, only that finasteride made it easier to find them thanks to the fact that it shrinks the prostate.

The debate on the relative merits of using finasteride has continued since. Suffice to say, the use of the drug didn't get much traction. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration added information to the drug label that finasteride and similar drugs could increase the frequency of more lethal forms of prostate cancer and that the drugs were not approved for prostate cancer prevention.

Meanwhile, organizations such as the American Cancer Society have suggested that men should make an informed decision as to whether or not they really want to be screened for prostate cancer with PSA testing, and the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that men should not be screened at all for the disease. But the impact of finasteride on reducing the incidence and deaths from prostate cancer and "the rest of the story" remained unanswered. At least until now. More...

Palliative Care Is About Quality Of Life Throughout The Cancer Journey

by Dr. Len August 09, 2013

A newspaper story last week caught my eye when it headlined: "Senators Revive Push for End-of-Life-Care Planning." It reported on new legislation making the rounds in Washington to address care planning for those with advanced illnesses.

You remember "end of life care planning," don't you? It was part of the Affordable Care Act debate several years ago, and quickly became translated into "death panels" where opponents made the argument that the government wanted to help people decide not to receive needed treatment. That was a moment that will live in my memory forever, and it's not a pleasant memory.

So here we are with this new bill, and a headline that suggests we may be headed down the same path once again. This time, however, I hope we can have a more rational and appropriate discussion about an issue that is rapidly evolving in cancer care, supported by medical evidence and medical professionals, not to mention organizations like the American Cancer Society who believe the time has come to engage our patients, their families and caregivers, and the nation at large in understanding the need for compassion as we care for patients with serious illness, including cancer. More...

Big Data And The Transformation Of Health Care: Promise Or Peril?

by Dr. Len August 06, 2013

There was a memorable scene in the movie "The Graduate" from 1967. You may know it or have heard of it, when the older man turns to the college graduate and says the future is all about one word: "plastics."

Well, plastics may have been then, but this is now. And the core themes I keep hearing these days there are two central ones that our becoming our new "plastics" in medicine: genomics and big data. Words that didn't mean much to most people a year or so ago now occupy front and center discussions at every level, not to mention are the topics of a number of meetings I have attended recently.

This past week I went to one of those meetings (sponsored by e Health Initiative) where over 450 people spent two days hearing from experts about the meaning, uses, and precautions that come along with "big data" in medical care. (Interestingly, there were also several presentations on the intersection of genomics and big data. So the two are definitely not mutually exclusive.)

Not that medicine is unique: big data is transforming much of the way we live and the way we experience life. What is different about medical care is that we are so far behind everyone else when it comes to adopting and effectively using information technology and data analysis to improve healthcare. But that is quickly changing. The power of technology is just beginning to impact health care as hospitals and doctors' offices increasingly adopt (and adapt to) health information technology, but it takes lots of resources and commitment--both human and financial--to make that happen. More...

It's Guns vs. Butter (Again): How Do We Reconcile Expensive Cancer Treatments With The Need To Improve The Basics Of Cancer Care?

by Dr. Len June 03, 2013

As we walk the halls and sit in the lectures at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, there's an elephant in the room. It is right there in front of us, but not many of us seem willing to talk about it. Fewer still are making any commitments to do something about it.

So what is this ubiquitous juxtaposition that is right in front of us but we can't seem to see?

It is the contrast between incredibly sophisticated science and computer data that will help us understand cancer and its treatment vs. the reality that we can't have medical records that really work. It is the fact that we have million dollar machines to treat cancer but we have tens of thousands of lives lost to cervical cancer in underdeveloped and underserved countries that could be saved with saved using vinegar. It is cancer care's version of the "guns vs. butter" debate of the 1960s. More...

Maybe It Really Is Different This Time For Patients With Advanced Melanoma

by Dr. Len June 03, 2013

Every convention and large meeting has a theme, and at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago the theme is "Building Bridges To Conquer Cancer." But for me, the theme as articulated in my blog the other day is "Is it really different this time?" Some agree with me and some don't, but that's OK. I am wearing a badge that says I am a "35 year member of ASCO" (I actually have been attending these meetings longer than that) so I perhaps have a bit of a different perspective than those younger than me. And there is plenty of commentary to back up my well-meaning and hopefully thought provoking conservatism.

In one of the major "award" lectures yesterday, Dr. Charles Sawyers from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York pointed out the disappointment we have had with many of our newer targeted therapies that once held the promise of truly making cancer a chronic disease. They are exciting in the beginning, but for many patients the responses are not long enough. As Dr. Sawyers noted, cancer cells eventually win the battle, and become resistant to the treatmentIn this context I was having another one of those ubiquitous hallway discussions with one of my friends and former colleagues who now runs a major advocacy/research organization focused on melanoma when she touted the new research and drugs available to treat advanced melanoma. And I said the words, "Is it really different this time?" to which she responded, "Yes, it is." And I said I wasn't so certain. So at her persistent urging, I went to the melanoma session yesterday to see for myself. And I sent my friend an email where I wrote, "You win" and to which she responded, "Told you so."

What changed? What made me eat the proverbial crow? Why is it different this time? More...

Genomics And Personalized Medicine: Is It Really Different This Time?

by Dr. Len June 01, 2013

Another year and another annual meeting for the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago. This is a meeting that regularly attracts many thousands of doctors, researchers, pharmaceutical folks and others interested in the science and business of cancer from around the globe to learn, to discuss, to persuade, to educate on the progress being made in clinical cancer research and treatment.

And like every year, there are themes that emerge, that tend to dominate the discussions. And there are other themes that aren't so visible, that don't get as much attention yet in my mind are equally important as they reflect not only on the item of the moment but on how we deliver on the promises we have made in the past and the hopes we all have for the future.

Clearly, the dominant and visible theme at this year's gathering is personalized medicine.

What strikes me about this topic is that over the past year it has gone from a "niche" discussion to a dominant theme not only here at ASCO but everywhere I turn. I am even seeing routine television news shows and commentators talking about the promise of personalized medicine. A talk that I planned six months ago to deliver in a couple of weeks from now in Boston where I was going to discuss (once again) the promise of personalized medicine in cancer care is now passé. Everyone knows about it, thanks to the incredible coverage it has been receiving literally everywhere. Now anyone who has been paying attention to the evening news could give that talk. The topic is ubiquitous.

So what is personalized medicine? At heart, what this is all about is harnessing our exploding knowledge of the human genome and applying it to the treatment of severe disease for individuals based on genetic analysis. Our focus today is on cancer, but other diseases such as degenerative brain diseases also will be impacted by our knowledge of the human genome.

As I sat in a lecture yesterday afternoon on the topics of genomics and personalized medicine, I was amazed about how much knowledge we have garnered in what appears to be such a short period of time. We now are hearing about new approaches to analyze how cancer cells work to discover master regulatory cells. The promise, of course, now that we have insight into the pathways of how cancer cells work internally is that we can target our efforts to those master regulators and conquer them, thus converting the cancer cell back to normality. Sounds simple, but it's not. And it has taken a lot of research to get us to that point.

So one comes away from those discussions imbued with a new enthusiasm that the cure is around the corner. We are almost there. We will succeed--hopefully in the very near term.

But then I pinch myself and say, "Really?" More...

American Cancer Society Celebrates Its 100 Year Anniversary Today With A Vision Of Making This Century Cancer's Last

by Dr. Len May 22, 2013

One hundred years.

That is a long time. And although thriving, remaining relevant and engaged for 100 years is a remarkable accomplishment for any organization, the American Cancer Society today takes pride not only in reflecting on the accomplishments of the last 100 years but also in our commitment to continue the fight, and make this century cancer's last.

A lot will be written about the remarkable accomplishments of the Society over the past century. The American Cancer Society takes pride in the fact that it has been able to serve millions of people during that time. It has put its mark on numerous improvements in the science and treatment of cancer. We have made incredible strides in understanding cancer, what causes it and what influences it, including the role of tobacco and overweight/obesity. We have funded 46 Nobel Prize winners at some time during their careers, frequently when they needed a start to develop their theory which led to great discoveries. And we have funded numerous investigators who have made other important and lifesaving contributions to understanding cancer and reducing its burden.

But the list is not complete. There is still too much we don't understand about cancer, its causes, and its impacts on patients, their families, their communities. We have come to a "tipping point" in the cycle where we have unlocked the genetic code of cancer and are just beginning to transform that information into lifesaving treatments. We wrestle with the early detection and prevention of some cancers, at a time when we thought--incorrectly, as it turns out--that simply finding cancer early was enough. We struggle with finding a way to get access to lifesaving or life comforting treatments to those who are diagnosed with cancer but don't have the resources to follow their journey in the best way possible. We have millions of survivors, yet understand too little about the problems they face long term, let alone being able to provide them with a system of care to respond to their needs. We have made remarkable progress in keeping children with cancer alive, free of disease into adulthood, but we haven't acknowledged the terrible price some of them have to pay from the side effects of their treatments. More...

About Dr. Len

Dr. Len

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP - Dr. Lichtenfeld is Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society.

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